The Apostelens Tommelfinger (2315m) on the southern tip of Greenland has a history of adventure. The massive granite wall, whose name translates as “Apostle’s Thumb,” is extremely remote in an Arctic climate, and the best access is by boat or helicopter. This summer a team of three Swiss and two French men upped the ante by sea kayaking 170 kilometers through the Atlantic Ocean to their objective with all their provisions, and then completing a first ascent on the west face just before a storm covered the wall in rime ice. They called their route Metrophobia (7a A2+ 120-degree ice 1700m).
The men were eager to commit to a big, uncertain goal, and they had very little knowledge of what lay ahead when they set off July 21.
Silvan Schuebach, Christian “Laddy” Ledergerber and Fabio Lupo of Switzerland, and Jerome Sullivan and Antoine Moineville of France, departed from Aappilattoq on the west coast of Greenland with fully loaded sea kayaks in water that was approximately 3 degrees Celsius. Sullivan had barely sat in a kayak before. They paddled through the North Atlantic Ocean amid icebergs and large predatory creatures for seven days, arriving at their basecamp on the shore of Lindenows Fjord July 27.
After a single semi-rest day, the men started their ascent with a marginal weather forecast on July 29. Huge seracs impeded access to the base of the 2000-meter wall and their abilities were immediately put to the test. They had only four ice screws to climb a 120-meter section of rotten, sometimes severely overhanging ice.
Once they were on the wall they expected to be sheltered from ice and rockfall. Instead they endured at least one sleepless night in hammocks while debris rained down from the chimney system they followed for most of the route.
“We couldn’t take the portaledges, as we didn’t have enough space in the kayaks,” Sullivan wrote in an email. “This made for some very bad shiver bivies. On the wall the temperature was never very cold, often between -5 and 5 degrees Celsius, but the humidity was very strong, and pretty quickly we had soaked sleeping bags and clothes. Out of the seven days on the wall, four were really miserable bivies! We did one hanging hammock bivy where we thought of the famous photo of Royal Robbins on El Capitan (on the First Ascent of the North America Wall in 1964). We had the hammocks in a huge dihedral system and had pieces of ice falling on us all night; it was quite scary and we kept waking up in a panic every 10 minutes.”
The men summited on July 3 after five bivies on the wall.
“The whole trip felt like a race to the summit as we had a really tight schedule in which rest days or bad weather days really weren’t an option,” Sullivan said. “On the last days we discussed whether we should fix what ropes we had or just push it to the summit. We decided to fix. As we went to sleep, Laddy suddenly said, ‘Let’s go to the top tomorrow and get off this wall!’ Everybody instantly agreed, annihilating the whole strategy we had just discussed for an hour. This was very representative of our ballistic decision-making process. The next day we made the summit, and as we came down the weather started to turn. The wall quickly became a sheet of frost and it stayed that way for three days. If we hadn’t been so spontaneous and decided to go for it, we wouldn’t have made the summit. Sometimes success depends on very little things.”
Their adventure was far from over, however. After two rest days, the men put their dry suits back on and began paddling back to Aappilattoq.
“The scariest moment for me, and probably for the group, was on a stormy day, kayaking back,” Sullivan said. “The swell was quite big (2m) and the wind was strong. We had to kayak across a bay for 15 kilometers. As we set out on the crossing my spray skirt popped off the rim of my cockpit and a lot of water came into the kayak, which quickly became uncontrollable. I flipped over a first time. My companions came to the rescue. I climbed back into the kayak with their help but was unable to empty it correctly as the incoming waves would fill up the kayak much quicker that I could pump the water out. I set off again only to find I really didn’t have any control at all and was inexorably attracted towards the open ocean. I flipped over a second time. Climbed back in. Flipped over a third time…. The water is only 3 degrees Celsius and after only a few minutes your fingers stop working and very quickly you become hypothermic. Laddy decided that towing me to safety was the only solution left. He clipped a rope to my kayak and started paddling like crazy (he’s a really big guy). By that time my whole kayak was literally under water and I was pumping the ocean to try and stay warm. I remember Antoine yelling, “pump” every time I started to tire. We made our way through the icebergs and when we reached the coast I was shivering and almost hypothermic. I’d do it again tomorrow!”
They reached Aappilattoq August 13.
The Apostelens Tommelfinger has only a handful of recorded ascents. There have been many more attempts than successes, dating back to 1971 when a French expedition with seventeen members had to retreat after three people were injured. More attempts followed and a French team first climbed the peak in 1975. An Austrian team climbed the northeast face in 1995, which was estimated to be only the fifth or sixth ascent. In 2003 a German team of four had to retreat 20 meters below the summit ice field after a falling rock left one with a badly broken foot. The Germans left most of their gear, hoping to return and complete the route. Two of them came back in 2008 only to call off their bid completely when they realized part of their route had been damaged by rockfall and appeared to be unstable. Many other bids were thwarted before people were able to leave the ground because of bad weather or mishaps with gear and supplies. After a successful climb in 1977, a French team declined to name or rate their route, urging future parties to “leave the region innocent of route descriptions and to keep the Kap Farvel region a preserve of first ascents.” (This information was complied from reports in the American Alpine Journal–Ed.)
Q & A with Jerome Sullivan
Q: What inspired this “fair-means” adventure in which you embarked with very little information, and why did you pick the location that you did–did you already have that particular wall in mind?
A: Silvan Schuepbach was the guy at the origin of the project. He’d been climbing in Greenland for a few years now, and on a recent trip he’d spotted the top of a massive-looking wall. After returning home, he figured out it was the Apostelens Tommelfinger. He and Laddy (Christian Ledergerber) had made the promise never to sea kayak or climb again after their last trip, but the size and steepness of this wall was just too promising and the idea of getting a boat chartered in just seemed a little void of adventure. The alpinist’s mind works in a way where the memories of suffering seem to dissipate with time, leaving a false souvenir of good moments and laughter where there sometimes was little! The hours of endless paddling were forgotten at the calling of this immense wall. The “fair means” approach was the core of our adventure. Although the word “fair” is very subjective and can be a vessel for anything, we decided to give it as much meaning as we could. It changed our state of mind and body. What could have been a more classic climbing trip turned into a journey into the depths of the Greenlandic fiords (almost literally). We came to understand the power of the ocean and lived to the rhythm of the currents. The commitment of the trip took on another dimension. The voyage would obviously have been totally different if a boat had dropped us off. Food aplenty, rest days, and comfort are luxuries that we left behind. The name of our route, Metrophobia, relates to the phobia we have of ordinary lives (also the constant sound of falling seracs reminded us of the metro). Taking the metro, going to work, having a daily routine is a very depressing prospect for us! The lack of comfort and struggle for survival is something that transcends us and for which we seem to have developed some sort of twisted addiction!
Q: How long did you plan for this?
A: Sylvan and Laddy planned the trip a few months in advance. The style of our team was adaptation, boldness, and ballistic decision-making. This was not a very safe approach, but luckily it worked anyway. The preparation was very short. Maybe two months passed between completion of the team and departure. Everything was planned on WhatsApp (a texting service). We met Fabio, who I had never met before, at the airport, and Laddy just a few days before. Antoine decided to come one week before departure when a previous teammate bailed, putting aside his guide exam and summer work! The human factor was a huge uncertainty, as we barely knew each other. I had never left on such a project with people I did not know, German Swiss to top that–they have quite a rigid reputation that turned out very far from the truth!
Q: The press release says the team “lacked kayaking experience”–what, if any, was the level of paddling or ocean experience going into it?
A: Lacking kayaking experience is a weak statement. I had kayaked a few times on the small lake of Passy in the lower Chamonix Valley in France, zigzagging between screaming children. I quickly decided the real challenge was climbing the wall, and I should go climbing instead. How wrong I was. The rest of the team had more kayaking experience than myself. Our captain, Laddy, had a considerable level of expertise. The first three days of paddling were a real agony as I didn’t have the same technique as my companions and had to compensate with physical power. When I finally had the paddling down, I was so tired that every muscle from my little toe to my ear was aching. The kayaking alternated between days of calm fiords, where the monotony would drive me half mad, and days of open sea were survival was the only thought. Overall the experience was very difficult and strenuous. I felt pretty stupid to be out in the North Atlantic Ocean, in 3-degree Celsius water, with little or no experience. Without Laddy I believe I would be fish bait at the bottom of the ocean by now!
Q: What did you learn about sea kayaking by the end of the trip?
A: I learned so much about sea kayaking. Unfortunately I decided I shall never sea kayak again, so it’s all pretty useless now!
Q: How much weight did each of you carry in his boat?
A: A rough estimation would be that we had about 60 to 70 kilograms in each kayak. We had a Swiss cheese sponsor so we had 25 kilograms of really good cheese! It was really cool to transport so much gear on our own power. In that sense kayaks are the perfect combination for approaching a wall by fair means.
Q: What was the best moment for you?
A: One of the best moments for me was paddling with the whales. You feel so small on the water. We are used to being the top of the food chain but in Greenland things are the other way around. Orcas, whales, polar bears–you are a potential snack and it feels quite humbling!